The knowledge we need for a sustainable future – NATURE publishes perspective co-authored by Timo von Wirth

12 October, 2020

Technocratic solutions to complex challenges won’t save us: research institutions and universities need to value and foster action-oriented knowledge and pluralism, and create the conditions for others to learn to do the same. Only in this way, will it be possible to address ‘wicked’ sustainability problems like climate change, according to a publication in Nature, co-authored by DRIFTer Timo von Wirth.
In a new publication in Nature Sustainability titled ‘A pluralistic and integrated approach to action-oriented knowledge for sustainability’, DRIFT researcher Timo von Wirth and international colleagues apply philosophy of science and theory of action to clarify what knowledge we need to support climate action in order to achieve sustainable futures and the UN Sustainable Development Goals. 
The work is motivated by two persistent frustrations:
(1) Despite good intentions, most knowledge from academia does not inform actions for sustainability;
(2) Sustainability science still lacks systematic approaches to understanding knowledge for sustainability and climate action.
To address these frustrations, DRIFTer Timo von Wirth embarked on a collaboration with a team of international researchers led by Guido Caniglia (Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research, Austria) In the paper, the authors suggest that universities and research institutions take two conceptual turns.
First, if we want to understand action-oriented knowledge for sustainability, we should not start by talking about knowledge. We have to first clarify what we mean by actions for sustainability, such as climate action. The authors suggest that actions for sustainability are three-dimensional and emergent processes that
(1) are designed with the intention to create change;
(2) require shared agency of multiple actors;
(3) are realized in complex and evolving social-ecological contexts.
Examples of actions for sustainability are initiatives of indigenous peoples seeking to restore the social-ecological integrity of their own land; adaptation and mitigation projects aiming to make cities more resilient; or school reforms aiming to foster new values and norms.
The second conceptual turn: if action-oriented knowledge has to support complex action processes and people’s capacity to create a sustainable future, then this knowledge cannot be one entity, but has to emerge from the integration of a many kinds of knowledge and ways of knowing – what’s called pluralism.
If we think of the three dimensions for sustainability action mentioned earlier, we can identify these various kinds of knowledge needed: The intentional design needs generative, prescriptive and strategic knowledge; Shared agency needs critical, empowering, and co-produced knowledge; Contextual realisation needs emergent, tactical and situated knowledge. All these support action and capacity building for change.
Caniglia, G., Luederitz, C., von Wirth, T. et al (2020). A pluralistic and integrated approach to action-oriented knowledge for sustainability. Nature Sustainability  
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Click here for the article.